Information technology (IT) may not seem the most obvious career choice for a physician with a passion for primary care and global health, but Maia Hightower, MD, MBA, MPH, believes the emerging field of health care IT will ultimately provide the tools to bring quality health care to millions of underserved people around the globe.
Hightower, who became chief medical information officer for University of Iowa Health Care in 2015, was recently honored for her expertise and leadership in health care IT. She was named one of the Most Powerful Women in Health Care IT by Health Data Management at the Most Powerful Women in Health Care IT conference May 17 in Boston. Of the 75 female IT executives so honored, Hightower was among 35 women to receive the award in the category of Chief Information Officers/IT leaders. She also delivered a presentation, The Diversity Algorithm: How to Boost Team Innovation in the Era of Big Data, at the conference.
As chief medical information officer, Hightower is in charge of leveraging UI Health Care’s investment in IT infrastructure for value, including leading electronic medical records (EMR) optimization, and support for UI Health Care, including bringing Epic’s Thrive curriculum of Epic efficiency best practices and developing a Physician Informatics Officer team to provide peer support to clinicians to increase EMR proficiency and adoption.
Q: How did you become a physician who specializes in IT?
A: I am one of the generation of doctors who have never been “on paper” in my professional practice. My first practice (in Oakland, California) was an early adopter of EMR in 2007. It was very forward-thinking and saw that everything was going digital and the sooner we adopted EMR, the sooner we would be able to take better care of our patients, participate in quality reporting, and other quality initiatives. This was pre-Meaningful Use days. But we were also looking at patient experience and being able to offer secure email to our patients. It was awesome to be part of a team that saw technology as a lever for improving how we care for patients.
I went to the Wharton Business School (executive MBA program in San Francisco). I was the only physician, and the program was really geared toward Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Having so many classmates who were involved in technology and informatics, or IT start-ups, was a huge influence. I briefly entertained start-up aspirations, and although that idea dwindled, what has remained is my interest in driving change from within – being an “intrapreneur.”
Q: How does your experience in global health and your passion for primary care influence your role as an IT leader?
A: I was in Tanzania and Kenya when I made the decision to become a doctor. I saw a woman—about my age and similar ethnic background—carrying water on her head, with wood and a baby strapped to her back. And I understood that her path was so predetermined and very likely not to change from her mother’s or her mother’s mother’s, whereas I had literally a world of opportunity and what was I going to do with it? I felt incredibly privileged and obligated to do something meaningful with that privilege. Health care is a fundamental human right. It was at that instant that I chose to become a physician.
So how can I reach this woman, or women like her? Initially, I thought very much about primary care and perhaps organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) or the World Health Organization. But if there is one thing IT has taught me, especially when I went to Wharton with peers in technology, it is how technology can actually break down that divide, and, within an instant, the data or information I collect today can reach across the globe. One day, I see a world where what we do at the UI or at other U.S. institutions connects with that woman. She may be on Epic someday and we may be sending her a MyChart message, or we might be providing telemedicine to a site very far away in an area of desperate need. Are we there yet? No, but IT really provides that possibility that we can connect the dots all the way to every man, woman, and child on this planet for the betterment of us all.
Q: How can health care best use informatics to solve its biggest challenges?
A: I think one of the biggest challenges for health care, as it is transitioning into the digital era, is being able to leverage that data for new insights. We have a huge amount of data right now, but it is not in a form where our health care system and people are able to leverage it effectively.
Right now, we do a pretty good job reporting our quality measures, all of these bits of data that reflect the quality of care that we have provided. What we currently report represents just a small fraction of what we actually do. I think there is an incredible opportunity as we move forward to chip away at that gap between the quality of care we provide and the quality of care we are able to measure and report digitally. A better digital representation of what we have actually done—of the whole pathway through our system—can really help us understand why one patient did well, and another did not, and be able to identify those key variables to better (or worse) outcomes.